Children are naturally open-minded learners. They are curious about the world but have not yet developed the biases that we, as adults, may have. They see difference among their classmates but place very little importance on it. When it comes to forging friendships, they look for others who they enjoy spending time with. A friend’s interests and personality are more important than what they look like or who their family is.
Today’s children are growing up in lots of different types of families and it’s never been more important for teaching to reflect this. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of same-sex couples living in the UK has increased substantially in recent years, with over 230,000 in 2018. While the exact number of LGBT families raising children isn’t known, it’s thought to be in the tens of thousands. The number of single parent and multi-generational households is also on the rise.
By including this whole array of family constellations in our teaching we can ensure that children from all backgrounds feel recognised, included and valued while encouraging children to regard others with respect. So how do the new statutory relationships and sex education (RSE) requirements help teachers to do this?
When the new RSE curriculum was first introduced, it sparked a flurry of negative press coverage and concerns about age-appropriateness. Many objections were born out of a fear that very young children would be learning about sexual feelings and relationships, or that the teaching of relationships would promote values and lifestyles that went against the children’s families’ own faith or beliefs.
Today we know that these concerns are unfounded. The focus of teaching for children up to the age of 11 looks at relationships in the context of family lives and friendships, helping children to learn that difference is everywhere and to respect it, as already required by the Independent Schools Standards.
The guidance for relationships education states that the intent is to “put in place the key building blocks of healthy, respectful relationships”. This begins with the family unit. Children learn that a family provides love, support and security, and that families come in all shapes and sizes. This helps every child to see themselves reflected and to be accepting of difference.
When it comes to reflecting same-sex relationships, this is especially important. The Equality Act states that schools need to make sure that the children of gay, lesbian or bisexual parents are not singled out for different treatment. This means that the children of same-sex couples have the same right to see themselves reflected in teaching materials about families as any other child.
Watching a video where children talk about their families can be a good starting point for these lessons and can prompt discussion among children about their own family set up
The new curriculum helps schools to do this in an age-appropriate way and rather than teaching about LGBT as a standalone lesson, the DfE guidance states that it should be ‘fully integrated into the curriculum’ – ie part of teaching about different types of relationships in the round. Same-sex relationships are just one aspect of family life and part of the society in which we all live.
Schools can bring this to life in their RSE teaching by teaching about families and committed relationships, beginning in pre-prep with a simple exploration of what a family is. Watching a video where children talk about their families can be a good starting point for these lessons and can prompt discussion among children about their own family set up.
Having established the importance of family, teachers can move on to explore diversity, giving pupils examples of different types while continuing to emphasise that love, care and support characterise families overall. This type of spiral curriculum, where children return to the same topic year by year, ensures that they develop a secure understanding of family constellations and values, and that the teaching is always age appropriate.
It is also important to establish a safe teaching and learning environment where children feel free to ask any questions, and teachers feel confident to answer them. As children today already have access to so much information, the classroom can be a safe place for them to discuss the topics that are on their minds.
The DfE guidance makes it clear that schools are free to determine how and when they do this and that communication with parents is key. Maintaining an open dialogue with parents and keeping them informed about what will be taught is vitally important, and can help to win support for a school’s RSE provision overall.
RSE isn’t about promoting or comparing different types of relationships. It is about preparing children for the experiences of adult life, helping them to understand their own feelings, make sound decision and treat others respectfully and without judgement.
We owe it to our children to give them the tools and resilience to understand and accept diversity in life. Great RSE teaching does this, helping every child to develop their sense of self-worth and take pride in their own uniqueness – and that of their family.
Discovery Education’s whole school, digital PSHE programme for primary schools is available for free until October. Visit www.discoveryeducation.co.uk/rse